- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) - Food pantries are in the business of feeding people, but business has been too good lately.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth in our business lately, but that’s not necessarily a good thing,” Deb Heater said as she surveyed the shelves stacked with basic foodstuffs at the Community Pantry in the Community Action Neighborhood Center in downtown Burlington.

The pantry provides emergency food assistance to local families, and the increasing demand for its services indicates an increasing number of Burlington families are struggling simply to put food on the table.

Heater, a family development specialist with Community Action of Southeast Iowa, manages the service’s limited resources drawn from government stocks and private donations to meet a seemingly unlimited demand for help.

According to U.S. Census data, 17.3 percent of Burlington residents were living below the federal poverty level in 2012, while the Iowa average was 12.2 percent.

“Right now we are assisting some 740 households in Des Moines County, and this works out to about 1,735 individuals,” Heater told the Hawk Eye (https://bit.ly/Lwp1iU). “That is a lot of people for a community of this size. People may not realize it, but it is a desperate situation, and it’s getting worse.”

She said a lack of local jobs paying a living wage coupled with an influx of new residents seeking employment contributes significantly to the number needing help.

“People are told by their relatives there are jobs in Burlington, but these jobs often do not pay enough to survive on, and rents are going up,” Heater said. “Many employers are now going more and more for part-time help, so our clients have a lot of reasons to come to us for help.”

The Community Action pantry is one of three food banks serving Burlington, and through a cooperative agreement it’s intended to help families living north of Division Street.

The Salvation Army’s food pantry works with families living south of Division Street, while the St. Vincent DePaul Pantry, associated with the town’s Catholic churches, serves the entire community.

St. Vincent DePaul, based in St. John’s Catholic Church, serves about 500 families a month throughout Burlington as well as Des Moines, Lee, Henry and Henderson counties. Clients are limited to one visit a month and the service strives to provide a mixed basket of food sufficient to feed a small family for one week.

Gary Fell is one of more than 75 volunteers donating time to the pantry, which began serving the community in the 1930s. Fell said requests for help are growing alarmingly.

“We will soon be seeing the impact of cuts in the food stamp program, and unemployment continues to be a problem in this area. We’re also seeing an influx of people coming to Burlington to find work and not finding it,” he said.

Fell said St. Vincent DePaul uses cash donations to the program to purchase food from the food bank in Ottumwa as well as working with food outlets in the Burlington area. But volunteer dropoffs are vital to meet the needs of a growing clientele.

Rita Howard, a pantry volunteer, said certain items always are in short supply.

“It seems like we quickly run out of personal care items, such as soap or shampoo, very early in the month. We count a lot on food donations from the general public and whatever people bring in is really appreciated,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there that need help.”

The Jefferson Street pantry also has a long history of helping those who need it. A division of Community Action of Southeast Iowa, it has roots running back to 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunities Act to address issues of poverty. Community Action helps clients obtain decent and affordable housing, employment, education and training, as well as help in meeting nutritional emergencies.

While salaries for Community Action are covered by a federal block grant, the pantry still relies heavily on private donations to meet the needs of the town’s hungry. Walmart, through its Feed America effort, is a regular source of food - particularly fresh produce - and Tyson Foods in Columbus Junction donates meat products. Local grocery stores also contribute.

Neighborhood Center director Dennis Ostrander said cash donations to the pantry often are used to purchase food at a deeply discounted rate from the Food Bank of Southern Iowa in Ottumwa - a nonprofit organization helping food pantries in an eight-county area.

“The food service in Ottumwa purchases food in large wholesale blocks so it can use its purchasing power to obtain the best bang for the buck,” he said. “It then breaks those purchases down into smaller blocks that they provide to us with only a very small up charge to cover transportation and repackaging. But we still rely on the churches, organizations and concerned individuals of Burlington to fill the food baskets.”

At the Salvation Army, office manager and social worker Rich Bliesener said food drives in local schools before Thanksgiving and Christmas mean the organization’s shelves should have enough food to make it through winter.

“We did really well this past fall,” he said, noting the organization hopes to have enough food to make it to the U.S. Postal Service’s annual food drive in May.

Still, he has noticed an uptick in pantry use.

Bliesener said while the shelves still have food to last into the spring, the Salvation Army pantry never turns away a donation and any help can be used.

At the same time, he has heard from other food pantry operators who are struggling to meet needs, including Community Action and the St. Vincent DePaul Pantry in Burlington. He said added private donations will help those facilities meet their growing needs.

Heater echoed the plea for private support and said the pantry also relies on volunteers to perform the many functions demanded by a service feeding such a large number of families.

“We have a group of dedicated workers who come in to help us stock and repack food bags for our clients, and it would be very difficult to operate without their help,” she said.

“Churches and other civic groups will step up and help us and bring baskets of food in that we can distribute, but we never know when those donations are going to arrive, so it is a little hard to manage them. But we are still overjoyed to get them. People in Burlington have big hearts and are quick to help once they see the need,” she said.

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Information from: The Hawk Eye, https://www.thehawkeye.com

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